Once Wernher von Braun spearheaded the American rocket program after World War II in Huntsville, Alabama, the sleepy southern town theretofore known as the “Watercress Capital of the World” was endowed with a modern calling and a vast new source of wealth. In 1975, the Huntsville Museum of Art was born along with the Von Braun Civic Center. From pictures, the very fancy museum galleries might as well have been those of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I first became aware of Huntsville at the age of 19, when I was house painting for John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. We’d met at Elaine’s. I needed work, and John had rented a tiny, run-down Stanford White town house on 77th off Madison—the one with a back-service passage into the Carlyle often used to advantage by Jack Kennedy. There, in 1974, preparations were well underway for the ill-fated Broadway musical Man on the Moon. (George Lucas had been solicited as a producer for the show by John’s daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, an actress in Lucas’s American Graffiti. Lucas ended up passing, and Andy Warhol wound up producing the musical. But it’s been often presumed that somewhere in all this was the genesis of Star Wars. John thought so, anyway.) The musical would recount von Braun’s post–W.W. II work in Huntsville that led to the development of the Saturn V rocket, instrumental in achieving Kennedy’s goal of sending men to the moon.